Jim Cresswell, a Korean War veteran, wears his uncle's hat from WWII. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

This holiday season, let’s make sure that veterans receive the gift of the best health care possible. It’s a big issue, but making sure they do may not be as difficult as it sounds. It might even be as easy as asking the right question.

More than 23 million veterans of military service live in the U.S., and approximately 1.4 million of those are currently serving active duty. With 1,680,418 veterans, Texas is second only to California in terms of veterans living in the state, and has the largest female veteran population of any state, numbering 177,075, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.

But nationwide, fewer than 22% use the services provided by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility. That’s because most vets are seen in civilian practices and facilities, where the health care providers may not know how to optimally communicate with veterans.

Military retirees don’t always live in locations where they can access military or VA treatment facilities, and approximately 500,000 men and women of the Reserve Components and National Guard typically return to their previous sources of health care after being released from active duty assignments. The VA reports that 40% of veterans that received ratings for compensable disabilities associated with their military service did not use health services or programs provided by the VA.

One of the most challenging issues for civilian health care providers is to identify veterans and help them understand what resources are available for their care and treatment. Asking service men and women “Are you a veteran?” may not be the right question because many are under the mistaken impression that they had to have served in a war to be a veteran. As a result, they don’t realize they are eligible for veteran benefits.

To address this, the American Academy of Nursing launched “Have You Ever Served in the Military?” that highlights the need to support America’s veterans in the areas of education, employment and wellness. Rather than asking, “Are you a veteran?” the campaign encourages health care professionals to routinely ask the rephrased question when any individual seeks health care.

The question is designed to encourage providers to delve into military service risk factors, signs and symptoms; protocols for treatment; rehabilitation options; and patient quality of care issues. Without this knowledge, health care professionals can miss an opportunity to address the issues that veterans, as opposed to the general public, deal with on a daily basis.

Depending on the answer, health care providers can proceed to determine military history and general areas of concern for veterans, such as behavioral health issues, traumatic injuries sustained during military service, or exposure to infectious diseases or other toxic situations.

Many of the nation’s nursing and medical schools as well as professional nursing organizations have already pledged to support the White House’s Joining Forces Initiative by including educational content about military-related occupational exposures and hazards to meet the physical and psychological needs of our veterans. Now this question needs to become a routine part of any physical check-up or health care visit.

Nurses and other health care providers in clinics and hospitals should request a pocket card from the “Have You Ever Served in the Military?” website, listing the most common health concerns linked to military service, as well as follow-up questions. It’s easy to obtain, and this information could make all the difference in providing quality care to service men and women.

Our nation’s veterans have been there for us in peacetime, war and during natural disasters. The least we can do is provide them with the best health care services possible by ensuring they get connected with the health care services to which they are entitled. It starts with asking the simple question “Have You Ever Served in the Military?” An easy question to ask to ensure that a veteran gets the gift of receiving the best health care possible.

This op-ed was originally published by UT News. To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here and/or follow on Facebook.

*Top image: Jim Cresswell, a Korean War veteran, wears his uncle’s hat from WWII.  Photo by Rachel Chaney.  

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Linda Yoder is a veteran and an associate professor of nursing at The University of Texas at Austin.